Even if your family earns too much money to qualify for federal need-based aid, there is plenty of other aid you might qualify for that's based on need.
While families earning more than $45,000 a year typically don't qualify for need-based federal aid, some elite schools -- like Yale -- give their own need-based grants to families earning $225,000 (or even more) a year.
Here's how to determine what you qualify for:
The government and colleges assess "need" by looking at the total cost of attendance, minus what they estimate your family can afford.
That estimate, which is referred to as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), is determined based on the information you provide when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Among the information they'll ask for is your family's earnings, as well as the amount you have in savings or investment accounts. The only students who don't have to provide the financial information about their parents are those who are over 23, married, parents themselves, or soldiers or veterans.
There are calculators and worksheets that can help you determine your EFC. (For more information, read What is the EFC? or visit the web sites of the U.S. Department of Education and the College Board.)
For the 2012-13 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education expects to award Pell grants to students with an EFC below $4,995.
College aid officials adjust your federal EFC and determine how much financial aid to award you depending upon their own review of your finances. Many colleges will calculate their own EFC for use in awarding their own financial aid. You may even be asked to fill out the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile, which asks for even more financial information than the FAFSA.
Just keep in mind that no matter what EFC the college or government calculates, no college or university is required to offer you enough grants to meet your "need."
In fact, only a few dozen colleges in the U.S. -- mostly expensive elite colleges, such as Harvard, Amherst and Vanderbilt -- promise to provide enough grants to meet their estimate of your "need."
The rest, including most public universities, leave a "gap" that students must fund through loans, work, merit scholarships or family contributions. The average "gap" between the average student's EFC and the total amount of grants the student receives was about $5,800 in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
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